- Published: 02 July 2013 02 July 2013
I absolutely fell in love not just with Elaine Neil Orr’s lyrical lovely prose and story in A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa,” but with her sweet personality and kindness. A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa, is her newest book. The novel follows an antebellum couple from the state of Georgia to West Africa where they are missionaries. What readers have found riveting about the story is its mystery: how the young Emma begins to piece together her past life as a daughter of a slave owner and her own redemption through immersion in African culture.
For the earnest, headstrong daughter of a prosperous slave owner, living among the Yoruba people is utterly unlike Emma’s sheltered childhood—as is her new husband, Henry Bowman. Twenty years her senior, the mercurial Henry is the object of Emma’s mad first love, intensifying the sensations of all they see and share together.
Lee Smith has called A Different Sun “as lyrical and passionate a novel as has ever been written. ...[it] shines in the mind like a rare gem.” And Wayne Caldwell, author of Cataloochee and Requiem by Fire said Elaine’s new novel is “An important book, one which unflinchingly explores tensions between Christianity and African religions, slavery and freedom, madness and love.”
Elaine, herself, is a rare gem—she has an easy-going way about her, a nice Southern, but educated accent, and is quick-witted and funny. How often do I get to interview someone who has hit it big, which in my world means being a SIBA Book Award nominee and getting your books in airport gift shops and indie bookstores all over the country?
Susan: What was your childhood like and growing up in Nigeria during a civil war? Were you ever in danger or frightened?
Elaine: My childhood in Nigeria was glorious. The natural world was my playground. Nigerians were my first family, along with my immediate family, and my mission family. I was not frightened for myself during the war, which tells you how distinctly American I was, though I didn’t understand at the time. The war was heart-breaking. I could feel the human tragedy in the air, as if the earth itself was mourning.
Susan: In your wonderfully written and highly-praised first novel, Emma Davis decides to become a missionary. From what inspiration and/or real-life people did this delightful and headstrong character emerge?
Elaine: I was inspired by the actual diary of the first female missionary to what is now Nigeria and by my own mother, who, along with my father, was a medical missionary to Nigeria, where I was born. But the character is doubtless driven in part by my own desire. I think we are always writing out of our desire.
Susan: This is your first novel, though your nonfiction has received major awards and accolades. Why did you decide to do a novel?
Elaine: At first I imagined a sort of conglomeration of biography, memoir, and fiction around the writer of the diary. But then as I wrote, I saw that there was so much I needed to imagine in order to bring the character to life. And I wanted to bring her to life. So I just decided to write a novel even though I had never written a sentence of fiction. And I told my friend, Sena Naslund (author of Ahab’s Wife), I was writing it, and she kept calling to ask how the novel was coming. So then it was a novel because she believed it was.
Susan: How does the special gift of a writing “box” help Emma discover herself and her purpose?
Elaine: Emma’s husband, Henry, gives her the writing box in the novel but I gave it to Emma too. The historical diary was red leather and I considered how the young missionary must have had something to hold it: the diary and her pen and ink and her paper. And being a well-to-do young woman from Georgia, she would likely have a writing box. So I invented it. Then I took a research trip to Georgia and met a distant relative of the historical woman and she had her writing box—from the 19th century, still full of her daughter’s letters! I think creating the writing box helped me discover Emma!
Susan: Since the novel is set during slave days, how much research goes into a project of this magnitude and how much is based on your real-life experiences?
Elaine: The research was demanding. The novel reaches as far back as the early 19th century. I didn’t know if paper was regularly available, what underwear was called, whether there were trains, much less what might actually have constituted day-to-day life for an enslaved person. I depended on literature I had already read, such as Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative” of his own life. I hardly knew which American states had been settled or what the Baptist church was like. Then there was the history of West Africa, not just encounters with Europeans and Americans, but encounters among African kingdoms, cultural mores and practices of the period. Somewhere I ran across the Yoruba practice of a woman governor or Iyalode, so I created such a woman who becomes a significant person in Emma’s life. I learned again that when you are researching and doing your work, showing up to write, miracles begin to occur, you begin to discover what you need, the research feeds the writing.
Susan: Your writing is lyrical, poetic and powerful. Did you study serious authors, the classic American greats, or do you read current literature? What other types of books interest you?
Elaine: My paid job is being a literature professor at N.C. State, so yes: I have spent my life reading great writers, some old, some new. Some who influenced this novel are Henry James, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, Ben Okri, Charles Frazier.
Susan: What message do you want most readers to take from A Different Sun? and do you think it will be made into a movie?
Elaine: Wouldn’t it be grand if this novel was put into the right producer’s hand. I could travel to Nigeria fot the film! Some readers have told me the novel is cinematic. I can’t say. I’m sure any producer would put in lots more big animals. My primary goal was to show what America looks like from a position in Africa; how Africa revises U.S. American assumptions about almost everything, from gender roles to religious understanding to preconceptions of “civilization.” African civilizations might have been more advanced than the U.S. American civilization that was supposedly “saving” Africa.
Susan: What would your fans be most surprised to know about you? Such as, “Do you have a “silly side” or a “funny little quirk?”
Elaine: It’s not very convincing to say “I’m a funny person” but I am—except only when I’m teaching or performing. In daily life among friends, I’m generally quiet and sometimes awkward. Growing up in Nigeria, I have never been adept at knowing or understanding American popular culture or even American culture generally. I feel out of place in a group of more than four people, maybe three, like the step-daughter. This comes, I think, from having a second self, my Nigerian self, that doesn’t “show” in skin color or “sound” in an accent. I look as if I’m a white woman who grew up in the South. And I am, in a way, only I’m a white woman whose parents were Southerners and I grew up in the Nigerian South. It’s actually a little too well known already that I spend way too much time on my hair. But maybe I can claim some Nigerian inheritance there, since hair is extremely significant for Nigerian women.
Susan: With your schedule and how do you find the time to write?
Elaine: Summer is absolutely critical. Without summers, there would be no books. I can keep writing during the year, but smaller projects, a short essay or a short story, not a novel. Though I’m going to try to begin writing every day in the morning, even if it’s only an hour. If I write five days a week for two hours, I can get a lot of writing out. I want to write more and more and I have this idea that if I keep writing, I’ll never die. I’ll always have a book still to finish.